Last night Zahra performed at another of the Hamid Drake/Michael Zerang annual winter solstice events at Constellation Chicago. Altogether they did three sunrise concerts and two evening shows. Hamid led the Friday night event with himself and Michael on drums, Josh Abrams on bass, Jason Adasiewicz on vibes and marimba, Zahra Baker on voice and percussion, Lisa Alvarez on harmonium and gong, and dancer Jessica Marasa.
The concert began with Lisa and Zahra coming in striking gongs. The effect was one of clearing the air, calling on those present to focus, setting the tone for what was to unfold. As Lisa switched to harmonium and Zahra sang into and through an Egyptian bendir drum, Jessica danced fluidly to their sonic offerings, intended as a representation of the Great Mother spirit. After a while, the other musicians joined in, creating a wide-ranging group improvisation that lasted the entire evening. There were seamless shifts in instrumentation and musical pairings, ending with a gong recessional and spellbound audience, for what clearly had been more ritual than performance.
A surprise addition was the toddler daughter of Josh and Lisa. Their babysitter was a no-show, so the baby became part of the show. She crawled and rocked, totally in tune with the music and the spirit of the evening. What could have been a giant distraction became an absolute delight. Jessica even danced with and around the little one, acknowledging her purity and presence.
Another highlight for me, of course, was seeing Zahra in her element. As a young child, her voice was so beautiful and strong that she was recruited into the adult choir at her church. Because her spiritual and musical journeys extended beyond the church and its music, Zahra has searched for places where her vocal style would be valued and respected.
One such outlet has been in the performance duo In the Spirit with storyteller Emily Hooper Lansana. Although I'd seen In the Spirit perform numerous times, I never realized the full power of Zahra's voice until I was sitting next to her as the duo presented their work to a small group at Columbia College. When Zahra began to sing I felt like I was being blown away by a force of nature. Now I get to hear her at home, when she's warming up, doing long tones, throat singing, singing spirituals. We perform in a number of different settings. And many others call on her to perform her vocal magic. We are all so lucky.